Learning Chinese: Frequently Asked Questions

Here you will hopefully find answers to your questions regarding learning chinese.  This is compiled mostly from my answers to questions that people have emailed to me since my learning Chinese pages went online in 1994.

First version: 10/02/1997
Last revision: 22/04/2000


1. about myself and my pages
  • 1.1 Why did you write these pages?

  • The time that I first began seriously applying myself to my Chinese studies coincided with my first adventures with the internet. I used many search engines but couldn't find any decent resources on the Chinese language, just lots of -here are some more links- pages, so I decided I would compile my own pages. My pages would actually contain real information, not just links!
    I reasoned that a student of Chinese was better qualified to write about the difficulties of learning the language than someone who was already an accomplished speaker.
    Well you have probably already read my pages, so you can judge for yourself!
    The difficulty associated with keeping all the links up to date means that I only have very few links featured here.  In the past I featured many links and had to spend all my spare time updating these when the pages changed.  A good search engine can help you to find resources.
  • 1.2 Can I contribute as well?

  • Yes! Please do. If you feel that you could make a contribution perhaps on a book that I haven't featured, or a new method of learning, then please email me with the details. I will not guarantee to add your comments to my pages, I also reserve the right to do a little editing, but I am interested in hearing your impressions.
  • 1.3 How many people read your pages?

  • Well, I don't always check but I would be disappointed if, on past record, fewer than 3000 people read this each week. Before you ask, I will not advertise anything. My motive is to encourage people to learn Chinese and this motive may conflict with the desire of someone to make money from such people.
  • 1.4 Do you sell any teaching programmes yourself?

  •  No I don't.
  • 1.5 What is your motivation for learning Chinese?

  • Well I expect that like many people, I have a combination of motives such as work or business opportunity, better communication with Chinese-speaking relatives and friends, a love of Chinese culture or just because it's different!
  • 1.6 How good are you at Chinese?

  • I read/write listen to and speak Chinese to some extent. My speaking is not fluent enough but I can usually make my point after a couple of attempts!  At the time of writing this (April 1996) I can only read or write something like 1200 characters, but my most serious shortcoming is an inability to fully follow quick conversation that I am not involved with, especially where the speech contains strong local accents.
  • 1.7 How long have you learnt Chinese?

  • Reading & writing: since 1996. Speaking & listening: seriously since 1996 but half-heartedly for about 5 years before that.  In my experience, this length of time is commonly required to become fluent.  Of course it's easier when you are younger!
  • 1.8 So you aren't a professional, why should I listen to you?

  • You don't have to!  I'm a learner, and I hope to share my perspective, as a learner, with other learners.

    2. computer resources for learning Chinese
  • 2.1 What is available?

  • The following are available for most machines as far as I know;
    Chinese text display programs
    Chinese editing programs
    flashcard character learning programs
    sound playback for recognition learning
    teaching packages either on CD-ROM or via internet
    in addition, if you use Netscape as your internet browser, you can get hold of Chinese fonts to allow you to click on and view Chinese pages, send and receive email/news in Chinese. At the moment though, Netscape does not allow you input Chinese.
    For those with higer proficiency, listening to Chinese speech is most important. One way to acheive this is using RealAudio. If your computer connects to the internet you can probably download a free RealAudio player for it that allows you to connect to continuous sound sources such as a Chinese speaking Radio (try RTM in Malaysia).
  • 2.2 What do I need - general?

  • The basic minimum configuration would be a font to display Chinese text and a Chinese display program to handle the font. For Chinese input you will need to use a Chinese editor or word processor. Some word processors or editors include their own fonts so you don't need to get hold of anything else.
    There are two basic types of Chinese character that can be displayed: full-form (as used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, at least until 1997) and simplified, the Chinese standard (as used in China, Singapore, and increasingly elsewhere).   The programs either display one or both of these types.  Within the software, different encoding methods may be used, from a standard set of encoding systems:
    GB:     this only displays simplified characters.
    Big5:   this displays both simplified and complicated characters.
    HZ:     I forgot what this has, but it's quite common on Chinese newsgroups.
    I recommend GB if you have a choice.
  • 2.3 What do I need - RiscOS machines?

  • If your machine runs RiscOS then you can buy '!Hanzi' which allows loading/ saving of HZ format, character entry and printing. It costs about UKP50 from Acorn software stockists (if you can't find it then email me and I'll dig out the details).   If you don't know what RiscOS is, then you don't have it, and can not have it.
    '!Zhongwen' is a shareware editor that supports GB loading/saving, character entry and it can even provide the pinyin for characters.
    '!Zhongwen' is available from the HENSA archive, but note that connections are extremely limited during office hours for users that are not from a .ac.uk domain.
  • 2.4 What do I need - Linux/Unix?

  • You will definitely require a font. Add this to your system resources, ask your system manager if you aren't sure what to do. Under Solaris, I put the fonts gb16st.pcf and hku16et.pcf in my xfonts directory - the setting up required wasn't difficult, adding the lines 'xset fp+ $HOME/xfonts' and 'xset fp rehash' to my .xsession file. Once you have the fonts, you can configure most packages to use them:
    Netscape can display Chinese encoding (see the Options->Document Encoding menu)
    if you have these fonts, read the Netscape documentation for more details.
    For general use I use cxterm (Chinese xterm) which allows entry of Chinese
    characters in a number of ways such as by entering pinyin or even by entering
    the English word for it to translate!
    An editor must be run under cxterm.  For simple things, 'celvis', a Chinese
    version of 'vi' seems to work quite well.
    'cnprint' allows a GB coded file (can include English text) to be printed
    as postscript, and 'hc' converts between GB and Big5 encoded Chinese.
    I've installed Chinese software under Sun Solaris, NetBSD/ARM and GNU/Linux and spent many hours of satisfied usage.
    Other programs with Chinese support include Emacs and XEmacs with the MULE package, various word processors, KDE (a window manager for Linux) has rudimentary support too.
    All these resources, and much more are available from the excellent China News Digest, in their software archive.
  • 2.5 What do I need - DOS/Windows?

  • There is a Chinese version of Windows but I have heard that it is unstable, however there are various resources available for DOS and Windows, including a very good program for printing Chinese documents to postscript.   Look at the web pages given in section 2.4 for further details, or go to your nearest Sunsite.
    However for anybody using Windows or DOS, I thoroughly recommend upgrading your operating system to GNU/Linux. This gives you an advanced and reliable operating system with thousands of extremely high quality software packages, many of which are free for personal use. Additionally, your computer will then be fully Internet-aware.

    3. audio-visual learning

    I'm not convinced about the usefulness of video courses, but a good audio cassette tape full of example sentences is a must, even if you have access to a Chinese speaker to practice with. Maybe others will disagree, but I believe in these components for learning (not in any particular order):

    Of these, the non-interactive teaching media can help with practicing listening skills, grammar, and tone recognition. You cannot hope to gain proficiency in understanding recorded spoken Chinese if you only practice with a Chinese speaker. Non-interactive listening is much more difficult and requires a lot of work.

    Some say that computer-aided learning will replace traditional book and cassette based learning. However the diligence and hard work of the student more than compensate for the differences in teaching method, and as long as plenty of resoures are available (written, verbal feedback, aural etc..) then any method will suffice.

    I would recommend video taped news programmes in Mandarin (from China, Singapore or Malaysia), audio tapes of news programmes - the BBC World Service Mandarin broacasts are extremely good in this respect, although you may have to write to the BBC directly to obtain them if you don't have a good shortwave receiver.

    Standing alongside a good text book to teach grammar, an interesting reader, and access to a native Chinese speaker to ensure correct pronounciation, video or audio resourses are very useful. Additional internet-based resources are slowly coming on-line. These include reading material, a homework-checking page, sound clips of Mandarin conversation, online dictionaries, guides to writing characters etc.. There are more resources coming on-line every day; do a web search in Yahoo or Altavista to find the latest.

    4. more about the Chinese language
  • 4.1  Sounds

  • Spoken Chinese contains relatively few phonemes (sounds), and hence has an incredible profusion of homophones (same sound, different meaning). This is very confusing to the new listener trying to understand speech - although can be considered an advantage in attaining a degree of spoken fluency since there are few sounds to learn...
    In addition to sounds, Chinese characters/words are distinguished through their spoken tone, of which there are 5 flavours; Of course you need to get the tone right to avoid some potentially rude and embarrasing consequences! Chinese speakers are NOT at all tolerant to misspoken tones - a new speaker must practice hard to get these right, and must practice even harder to begin to recognise them in others' speech.  It is not at all uncommon for new learners to not even notice any difference in tone. Try it!!
  • 4.2  pin yin

  • Hua Yu Pin Yin (to give it its full name) is a method of writing the Chinese character sounds in a western script. It is the standard adopted by the Peoples' Republic of China, and other countries for teaching and transcribing Chinese. It replaces an earlier British system called Wade-Giles (whereas pin yin derives from a German system), that may still be found in some older books, and in some proper Nouns. Some examples of the two, with pin yin on the left are;
    Deng XiaoPing      Teng Hsiao-P'ing
    Beijing            Peking
    Chou               Zhou
    Mao Zedong         Mao Tse-Tung
    Guan Ying          Kuan Yin
    Many older Chinese, or overseas Chinese have been taught their language using a system called "bo po mo fo" which ascribes sound symbols to words. Not being familiar with this system, it reminds me of Japanese writing to look at.  Among thpse people there is come feeling that pin yin requires too much work of learners, since it needs three steps for each word (meaning->pin yin, pin yin-> sound and pin yin->character).
  • 4.3 characters

  • Printed characters come in two types: the "simplified" characters adopted as standard in China, Singapore and used in most modern dictionaries and text-books, and "full-form" or "complicated" characters as used in Taiwan, by some overseas Chinese and used previously in Hong Kong. In Chinese, these forms are called jiao-ti zi and fan-ti zi respectively.

    Due to the much more balanced and elegant appearance of fan-ti zi, these complicated characters may still be used for shop signs, adverts, Christmas and New Year cards and on certificates, even when jian-ti zi are used in everyday life.  For the learner the simplified characters are much easier to remember and write, although it must be said that knowing the fan-ti zi will be better for total understanding, and does convey a certain advantage in determining the roots of a character (see below).

    Printed characters may also be in a variety of fonts, Song and Ming are common, and can cause an unwary learner to learn the same character twice (especially look for small vertical lines drawn horizontally)!.

    Characters generally consist of two parts, a radical and a phonetic part. The radical, almost always found as the separate left-hand side or bottom of the character generally classifies the character into subject, whilst the remaining part gives some clues as to the pronounciation.  In addition, most dictionaries work by indexing the character by its radical and the number of strokes remaining (ie. the number of lines required to write the character excluding the radical). This is not always as easy to count as it sounds!
    I noted above that there was some advantage in knowing complicated characters, and that is due to the simplification process used in forming the simplified characters. This not only removes many of the pronounciation clues, but also merges certain classes of radical together.
    A final note; whilst the radical does convey some information on the meaning sometime, do not rely on it doing so. For example;

    chair         wood radical
    table         wood radical
    cup           wood radical (it probably was made of wood once-upon-a time)
    thigh         meat radical
    kidney        meat radical
    friend        meat radical!!
    snake         insect radical
    ant           insect radical
    rainbow       insect radical!
    And the same is true for the phonetic part of the character: do not rely on it for pronounciation - it's probably only useful as a cue to remember how to pronounce a forgotten character.

    I don't think anyone agrees on the total number of characters, however a figure of above 10,000 is likely. A well-educated Chinese person may know 4000 to 6000, but could get by with less. John DeFrances publishes some very interesting information about the number of characters used, and required for reading everyday texts, in Beginning Chinese Reader vol.1. That is the place to look at for definitive information (unfortunately I no longer have my copy of the book). If you want to read a fairly simple newspaper story you will need to know over 1500 characters, and still be prepared to spend time in your dictionary (believe me, I know about this!).

    Numbers may be written using Western (Arabic) characters, or using Chinese characters. Even when using the latter, the Western '0' will usually crop up because it is easier to write than the Chinese 'ling' character. In addition to the normal characters, another set of numbers are used for security on cheques and other monetary trasactions (this is because it is very easy to add a line or two to alter the amount written with standard numeric characters).

  • 4.4 writing - general

  • Writing can be from left to right, right to left or top to bottom, either starting on the left or on the right. Confused? Well this is not easy for a learner to figure out, and if you get it wrong, you get the wrong message! Although most modern books tend to write from left to right as in English to make life easier.

    There are no gaps between "words", requiring the reader to mentally clump together groups of characters into sets of phrases. Often, the mental dividing lines are difficult for learners to apply because the last one or two characters in one phrase may equally as well join the first one or two characters in the next phrase, both meanings may be possible! It gets easier with more practice though.  Chinese writing has evolved with a predominant use of double characters, rather then single characters.  The single characters may be found in historic texts, but more recent writing uses two characters that, together, impart the same meaning, but with less possibility of error.

    Punctuation: Chinese has a sort of reverse comma that is used as a list separator (read it as "and"), quotation marks may look a little weird at times, and full stops are often open in the centre. Peoples names may be underlined, and sometimes the separation between translated Christian name and Surname for foreigners may have a dot.

  • 4.5 writing - by hand

  • Characters are written using a strict set of rules - the different lines that can be used to make up each character are named and must each be written in the correct direction and with the correct upstroke (small tick) at the end.
    In general, a character is written from left to right and from top to bottom, and the pen or brush will mostly flow in those directions for the main part of each line. For characters that have a surround (a box), the general rule is to draw the left hand side (with the line drawn downwards), then the top and right hand side (in one movement). The interior is then drawn before the box is 'closed' with a line across the bottom. There are always exceptions to rules, and character writing requires a lot of practice before a degree of competence can be reached.

    For the learner, it is useful to start by writing large characters in a grid. Each square may be further subdivided into quarters, and possibly with diagonal lines as well. This is to teach correct proportions.
    When I first learnt characters I was amazed how Chinese could spot any lines that I wrote in the wrong direction, and were sensitive to small variations like whether lines should cross, should meet, should miss by a small margin or by a large margin. Beware that it will take you a while before you appreciate these subtleties, and don't be tempted to take a short-cut or do it "your own way - its easier"!

    The good news for learners is that due to the fairly small set of line types, and the repetition of basic character components, you can quite quickly attain a state where you will be able to correctly write any new character you come across. Perhaps I should note here that many Chinese teachers will repeat that new characters should be written 100 times or more before you can say that you "know" them.

  • 4.6  writing - by brush

  • Sorry, not yet written.

    5. info from other sources

    I've received many, many emails from different people telling me of their experiences, recommending software or books. Some of these emails have been reproduced below (and often edited a bit too). Where possible the people below have been asked if they mind their information appearing here, although I have not been able to check with everyone. If you have something you wish to add, or any comments to make, then please email me.

    Lam Ho Cheong at HK University emailed me about his multi-media project for the teaching and learning of Chinese. He says "From this project home page, visitors can download our free shareware, obtain the latest news about our work as well as joining our mailing list to get further information in the future."
    Andy Larbalestier emailed: Actually, the Hugo book "Chinese in 3 months" is v good, despite the crap title. i don't know what the rest of that # months series is like but, despit occasional simplicity, it touches a host of tricky little idioms and grammar points in a wonderfully concise fashion. Have u read "Swallowing Clouds" by A Zee? Also a v good read, although out of print now so u have to hunt through the 2nh hand stores for it now. u may have seen M Bosley's "Radical Exam" demo on the WWW here and there. The full version is cool espec for $25.00!
    Eric Kaplan wrote:
    I studied Mandarin for a year with a tape series by Sybervision. It was great. I know enough to get by but would like to improve. I learn best by hearing it.
    John M. Basgen wrote: A book about life in China that I have been recommonding is "Coming Home Crazy" by Bill Holm, published by Milkweed Editions, 1990.
    Ray Zhang of Resources United International Company of California, USA mailed me to say "We have set up a web page introducing a new program teaching Chinese. You are invited to visit the page at: www.inet-images.com/ruic/cstep"
    Rick Harbaugh has an excellent Chinese etymological dictionary at zhongwen.com
    Victor Lindsay sent the following:
    I also use a multimedia program called "Professional Interactive Chinese" by Venture Tech. The teaching features include learning new words, grammer, phrases and phonics through the Main Text and Phonics activities. After you have successfully completed a difficult exercise it plays a song for you that sounds like you just won an olympic gold metal. Its very encouraging. The animation feature, graphically displays the mouth movements during pronounciation of a word or letter. You can even ask for a voice description of the mouth movements: "Place the tongue directly behind the upper teeth and let air pass through." I found that I only need to do this once.
    I found out about the program on the Internet. But you can get your copy by calling 800-409-8368. Its only $99. There is a 30 day money back guarantee.
    A Chinese speaking church is a good place to meet people. They are very warm, friendly, and welcome you to join their church family anytime. Typically, the youger people speak English or are Bi-lingual, and the older people speak mostly Chinese. Usually two services are provided on Sunday Morning: English or Mandarin. So you can transition into a full Chinese speaking environment at your own pace. The songs in the hymm books are usually bi-lingual also. So, you can see the translations as they are being sung.
    Steve Stoddard has emailed quite extensive information reproduced below:
    Mr. Tyler Chambers has created "The Human Languages Page" with a separate page for user-generated reviews of learning resources. I've submited reviews on DeFrancis "Beginning Chinese", TwinBridge "Chinese Partner" and "Speech Partner", Lighthouse Computer's "Chinese Radical Exam", and Professor C.C. Cheng's "Pinyin TrueType Tone Fonts" for Windows and Macintosh. The URL for The Human Languages Page is at www.june29.com/HLP, and the Review Page is at www.june29.com/HLPR.
    I just received Book II and the remaining materials in the "Chinese For Today" series. The text books are about 400 pages each, with twelve tapes. The separate Readers are mostly that, with smaller sections devoted to writing skills. Book I is dialog format, while Book II includes more monologs, with comments and exercises. I think it's less Taiwan-oriented than DeFrancis. Cost of the whole system is about $200, from China Books and Periodicals, Inc., San Francisco, phone 415-282-2994, FAX 415-282-0994. They are binding is soft but high-quality, with good paper and clear typeface for both the pinyin and Chinese characters.
    I've listened to a bunch of lessons [on tape] from Book I, and one from Book II. For each lesson, the dialog or monolog is narrated twice, followed by the vocabulary and all the exercises. Both male and female speakers are used. Narration is at normal converstational speed, and I suspect they're even a little toward the upper range of that. Dialog is recited at slower speed with pauses for the student. Recording quality gets a little buzzy in a few places, but its good most of the time. There are six tapes for each Book. The first set uses English to introduce lesson headings, but the second set is all Chinese.
    He then goes on to reproduce the Book I preface. If you want this, email me and I can provide more information.
    The [Beijing Language Institute ?] China Books and Periodicals catalog is worth asking for. The selection is large and covers all of interest to learners at all levels, including kids and Chinese parents of Western-born kids, and serious Chinese literature. I do think they are somewhat greedy though, on some items.
    citac@ix.netcom.com wrote: CITAC Corporation has developed a computerized Chinese language tutor designed expressly for English speaking people. The system uses computerized multimedia speakers for correct pronunciation. The system teaches both speaking and reading Mandarin Chinese at the student's own pace. The completed language course will give a student the equivalent of a Chinese high school student's reading and speaking skills and fluency. Please E-Mail for additional information.
    When I enquired the translation system was US$15000 and the CDROM US$295.

    6. where can I purchase the books?
    I have noted the ISBN number for each book on the learning Chinese page; your local bookshop should be able to order the book within two weeks using that information, and at no extra cost.  It has come to my attention that a number of countries such as the USA and Australia surprisingly do not have many quality bookshops.  In that case, you can buy on-line at: You will need to search by ISBN, Author, Title or by keyword (try "learning Chinese" or "Chinese language"). These all stock most of the books I have reviewed, and others too. The cost, including delivery, should be about the same price as any local bookshop.